Globally, fashion duos are not exactly the norm, but they are not rare. Dolce & Gabbana (Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabban), Rodarte (the Mulleavy sisters, Kate and Laura), Proenza Schouler (Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez) come to mind. In the Philippines, most local designers work alone. While there have been many fashion designers who have grouped themselves into associations and councils, these groups exist more for group shows or charity projects. For the most part, the job of a Filipino fashion designer is a pretty lonely one. But a new collaboration in town just may change all that.
The House of Laurel is both a brand and a literal building, a landmark in Poblacion way before it was “Pobla,” or the Makati magnet for bars, restaurants, happy hour cocktails, and all sorts of nocturnal shenanigans. When we were planning the interview for this story, a few nearby restaurants in Rockwell were tossed about as potential venues, when Rajo posted on the chat, “Let’s just meet in the studio. Then you’ll get a better feel of what we did.” A wise choice, indeed.
It is both a fashion lover’s wonderland and a working atelier. There is a steady stream of clients ambling in and staff carrying clothes to fitting rooms, and shoppers who can find outfits, accessories, home needs, and even books and magazines to peruse as they choose. It is a physical manifestation of three decades of dedication, devotion, and a total immersion in fashion for Rajo Laurel, his family, and his team.
When Rajo Laurel and Martin Bautista decided that they would embark on a collaboration for a ready-to-wear collection, they certainly didn’t set out to make history or create ripples in the closely-knit fashion industry. On one hand, it was a way of creating buzz after the pandemic had almost put a halt to the fashion and retail landscapes. On the other hand, it was also an exploration of creative expression. “There had to be a fun factor,” as Rajo simply put it.
Rajo takes us back to how the collaboration began. “I was talking with my sister Venisse about how [we could] somehow revive the brand [post-pandemic]. She asked me, ‘How can we grow if we don’t allow other voices in?’ And it’s true that if it’s all just about your own voice, then you might find yourself saying the same thing over and over again.”
ONE AND ONLY
“Martin was my only choice. If he hadn’t said yes, I don’t think I would have done a collaboration,” Rajo admits. We have now climbed up to his library loft and are surrounded by shelves groaning with fashion books. Rajo feels that it is the best place to chat because at the beginning of the collaboration, Martin had holed himself up in this cozy book lover’s dream nest, perched above Rajo’s work space. They both agreed that the library was the best place to feel the vibe behind their process and cross-pollination.
“How could I have said no? As soon as he called me, wow, ang dami kong ideas! Grabe, tuloy-tuloy! [I had a lot of ideas! They just flowed!] I spent hours in this room, just doing research, and also going through Rajo’s archives,” Martin gushes.
“My process is always from the outside going in. I’ll travel, go somewhere, and then come back and try to bring what I saw back here, somehow find a way to integrate it into the life here,” Rajo says. “Then Martin said, ‘Rajo, what if you take it another way? Go inside and bring out what’s right here. And that was how we found the name of the collection; it became Volver, ‘to return’.”
“I wanted it to be a celebration of what Rajo has done. He is a household word, he has done so much,” Martin adds. “I really wanted to go back to his early works.”
“And we also just went around Poblacion, just really looking around the neighborhood, every corner,” Rajo expands on the process.
From brainstorming, to making mood boards, to drawing actual sketches, to interpreting said sketches, to creating prototypes, and to fitting the muslins, and to now planning their launch, it all took around six months. “My team was enthralled by Martin, and from doing the color palette, to making the actual pieces, it’s something that we all enjoyed,” Rajo reminisces.
When we go down to the design studio to see the muslins, I see floaty, ethereal pieces that are clearly easy to slip on and off, clothes that become both armor and ally. On the walls are sketches, photos, mood boards, and the tremendous amount of work envelopes me.
“Each item looks good on its own, but it actually looks its best when seen with the whole collection. That is how well everything goes together,” Martin sums up.
Rajo and Martin are both celebrating career milestones this year; 30 years for Rajo and 15 for Martin. Both were fortunate enough to receive critical success from the local fashion press early on in their careers; and they then parlayed that visibility into building and nurturing a loyal clientele. They have mastered that magic balance of injecting interesting and intricate details into very wearable, seriously flattering clothes.
“Even when I try to do conceptual clothes, they will still be wearable,” Martin quips.
“I can’t imagine doing clothes that women couldn’t wear, that are just meant to be seen in a museum,” Rajo says in agreement.
To avoid burnout, Rajo says he focuses on the fact that he gets to work with friends. “When you’re with friends, you never run out of things to say. So it’s the same way with ideas and inspiration,” he says. Martin adds that you “will always somehow find that balance of renewing your old ideas and trying new things.”
While their aesthetics came together easily, their individual approaches were on opposite ends of the spectrum. “I’ve always been instinctive, it comes from my gut, and I just trust it. Martin taught me to think things through, analyze a bit, look closely, and ask, Should that be there? Why is it there?” Conversely, Martin says he has learned to go with his instincts more. “I’m a Virgo, and although I’m not the super OC kind of Virgo, I do believe in planning, analyzing, organizing. Working with Rajo made me more instinctive.”
What they both brought to the table was a deep, abiding love for music. “We named one of the pieces in the collection “Songbird” after Regine Velazquez! We just love her!” Martin reveals and they both say they must send her pieces from the collaboration.
Though they are both known for dressing marquee names and A-listers, what really excites them is seeing the pieces on real people. “I am really looking forward to spotting people in the mall wearing [the clothes] and seeing how they will style them, and how they will look once they’re out in the world,” Martin says.
Makeup: Zidjian Paul. Hair: Mong Amado. Models: Thuthiporn MacReady, Reimi Kobayashi. Nails: Extraordinail. Producer: Anz Hizon. Interns: Allyson Nibungco, Jill Santos
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